Music Video Seeks Revolution – By Nate Long
Years ago, in the late sixties and seventies, revolutionary music changed the way a generation interacted with its entertainment. The radical youth of the day sought out music that carried a tune and simultaneously seethed with a demand for social change. In the past several decades, it is hardly debatable that this same desire to produce challenging music has subsided.
Unfortunately, this has informed much of the music video output of the last thirty years. In order for a video to be a successful artistic endeavor, it seems, it must fit into the rigid mold of commercial television programming. This has led to a music video canon that is comprised overwhelmingly by simple, colorful images put to music.
Producer, musician and IndieFEST award-winner Stephan Galfas is actively working to reestablish the place of social advocacy in music videos. A veteran of the music industry, Galfas has worked with a variety of entertainment icons, including Kool and the Gang, Meat Loaf, Gap Band, Cameo, and the Parliament Funkadelic.
He has made music from Australia to Africa to the Amazon. Galfas describes himself as someone who likes to get down and dirty with the work that he does, but this mindset extends far beyond the exotic locales and rock stars: he sees art, especially music and music videos, as an advocate for social change. Says Galfas “It is important for my art to have a certain social consciousness”. Throughout his career, Galfas has refused to compromise his work‘s ability to challenge the audience, by embracing what he refers to as the beauty in difference.
However, Galfas does not think that entertainment and social awareness need to be mutually exclusive. On the contrary, he believes that to make moving art, one must have a core of truth and the ability to effectively convey this truth. One should seek to create art which is serious work, but with joy involved. Galfas points out that a message that has no audience has no agency, and thus is self-serving and useless. “I enjoy my art, but I don‘t have an ego about it” he says, proclaiming that accessibility is essential and one cannot make successful art purely for oneself. He also adds that despite taking up social causes, he is no pretentious hippie. He is a man with a mission to promote change through art.
So what separates commercial schlock from powerful music and film? Galfas‘s answer will come as no surprise to seasoned members of the independent film community: motivation. The key is to temper mass-appeal, accessible entertainment with an intellectual challenge that engages viewers and listeners beyond the time spent in front of the television or inside the private cavern of headphones.
A music video with artistic value will hold the attention of the viewer while they are watching, but provide something to take with [them] as well. Galfas believes that the only way this can truly be achieved is if the motivations of the artist lay fully in conveying this message of truth in a catchy way. Seeking only money will compromise the substance; seeking only artistic indulgence will alienate the audience.
Fittingly, Galfas ‘s work with Jana Mashonee has been some of his most rewarding. Jana is a talented singer and songwriter but beyond that she is a breath of cultural fresh air in an industry quick to marginalize new voices who identify with their heritage. Jana refuses to be considered a diva who just happens to be of native blood. She refers to herself as an urban Indian and has seamlessly coalesced her life as a hip, young musician with her roots as an American Indian. This allows her to transcend the polarizing boundaries of marketed ethnicity by appealing to people as a regular girl as well as someone in touch with reservation life.
She has a powerful, sonorous voice that would be gripping no matter what the subject. Yet Jana will not pander to the banal nature of commercial pop; she uses her melodious pipes to celebrate the history of her people. Moreover, she laments the modern plight of the American Indian.
Needless to say, this hybridization of new and old resonates with Galfas‘s dichotic attitude toward artistic expression. Furthermore, the emphasis on ancestral pride evokes his personal history. Galfas, who is mixed Sudanese, Greek and Caucasian, has always been profoundly interested in diverse cultures and world music. Ascribing value to tradition has been somewhat of a coming-of-age experience for him: “When you ‘re young you just do something because you do it. When you ‘re old, you do it because you appreciate it”.
Through his work producing Jana‘s music, Galfas began to gain a deeper understanding of the current state of American Indian culture, which he describes as astoundingly shocking third-world stuff, in this country. Though myths persist about a healthy, gambling-fueled economy and a kind of unified Indian state, the vast majority of the American Indian population lives just above the poverty level, with many families unable to keep their heads above water. “The truth just gets swept under the rug”Galfas explains. Working with Jana, Galfas now seeks to integrate a more accurate portrait of Indians into the American mainstream cultural discourse.
Thus we are presented with Jana’s video for A Change is Gonna Come. Galfas produced as well as directed and edited (with Kristen Koerner) the video, which he describes as a work that requires the viewer to participate and react. The video is simple and effective: Jana and her guitarist, Derek Miller, performing against a black background, accompanied by a series of images of reservation children. Kids can‘t lie, Galfas explains as reasoning for the impromptu photographs.
Indeed, as the images appear and fade, a sense of honesty and humanity emanates. The photos, ranging from the 1800s to the current day, convey two distinct messages. The first is a confrontation of sorts: some of the most destitute images are from 2008, though one might assume they are from the time of the Civil War. This homogeny poignantly shows how the native people of this continent have yet to find a way to thrive in a modern environment that has marginalized their community.
In spite of this tragedy, the second message is one of hope. The kids faces show hope and resolve. This duel nature is what makes the images of the children so striking: we may at first feel sympathy for the kids, but their innocent joy makes it impossible for one not to smile back.
As always, Galfas sees the images as agents for social change: “I don‘t want people to feel horribly guilty about these kids. I want them to be motivated and impassioned by these kids.” The video closes with a shot of Jana embracing a child, who smiles so warmly it is impossible to see her as a tragic figure. The image is so charmingly visceral that it forces the viewer to consider the child as more than simply an image on a screen. She is a living person in this country, a fellow American.
Accompanying the images of the children is the performance footage of Jana and Derek. Galfas employed an unusual technique in order to capture the best possible performance: for each shot, the song was performed live, complete with amplification. Seeing his overall responsibility as delivering a passionate performance, Galfas did not want his musicians to have to fake anything for a couple of seconds in order to add in a pan here and there.
Needless to say, doing a series of five-minute shots was draining and required an absurd amount of finesse. Galfas recalls the process as a lot of pre-thinking for something that doesn‘t look thought about at all. Of course this is the point: to capture pure, human energy. Jana is engaging the camera throughout, and the live performance is evidenced by the subtle strain in her expression. The sheer humanity of the video is breathtaking.
Upon reflection, Galfas is extremely proud of his work on the video, though he notes “the process of making videos, by definition, is toxic and long.” For budding video directors, he has several pieces of advice. First, he warns, “Cameras can really screw up a great performance.” For the Jana video, Galfas shot with a Sony EX-1, to reduce the amount of distraction on the musicians’ behalf. Secondly, although it can be draining on the crew, recording several full-length, live performances and then splicing them will yield far more genuine results.
Beyond that, Galfas provides three criteria which directors should strive for: “Having a core of truth, using songs about which you are passionate, and not letting craft get in the way of art, because in most videos, technology overrides heart… if you don’t believe in the song, the video will be crap.”
Finally, it is important to remember the true motivation of independent filmmakers, the message. Galfas sums it up bluntly: “If it was just about the big bucks, I would shoot myself.”